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Learning through play

Learning to handwrite does not start with pen and paper but through play, as children explore shape and motion (how the body moves) through their senses - touch, sight and body awareness. Play is such an important element of your child's physical, emotional, social and academic development.

There has been considerable research over the years on play with the consensus being that children need to experience five different types of play. These five types of play are roughly based on the developmental opportunities they provide, especially if it is child driven rather than adult lead:

Physical Play - active exercise (running, jumping, skipping etc..), rough & tumble and fine motor skills activities to develop whole body and hand and eye coordination strength and endurance. The outdoor element of such play develops independence, resourcefulness and self-regulation while the fine motor skills activities support the development of concentration and perseverance.

Play with Objects - starts as soon as a child can grasp and hold an object; mouthing, biting, turning, stroking, hitting and dropping. It's how we all learn through the exploration of our senses (sensory-motor play). This type of play develops our abilities to; physically manipulate items, think, reason and problem solve, to set challenges and goals as well as to monitor our own progress.

Symbolic Play - refers to the development of spoken language, visual symbols such as letters and numbers, music, painting, drawing and other media used for communication of thought and ideas. This type of play allows children to develop the abilities to express and reflect on experiences, ideas and emotions. Sound and language play develops phonological awareness required for literacy, while number play that relates to real life situations supports numerical skills.

Pretence/socio-dramatic Play - pretend play provides the opportunity to develop cognitive, social, self-regulatory and academic skills. This kind of play means children have to learn and pick up on unspoken rules of interaction, taking on the role of a character and playing within the expected confines of that role.

Games with Rules - physical games such as chase, hide & seek, sport, board and computer games. Develop social skills and the emotional skills of taking turns, winning and losing as well as other people's perspectives.

Young children begin to learn pre-handwriting patterns long before they can hold a pencil properly in the tripod grip. They begin to learn directional pushes and pulls as they play with their toys such as cars or pretending to cook. Pre-handwriting patterns are then taught to young children through drawing pictures, patterns and then as letter shapes.

By initially teaching pre-handwriting patterns and letter shapes on a large scale a child to learns to store and retrieve particular directional movement and shape patterns. This movement information is stored in their motor memory, when they begin to develop and refine their letter formation skills they draw upon this previously stored information.  

Our 'Big to Small' activities help your child to experience and build these important movement and shape pattern memories.

Big to Small

Start big by using the whole body to move around shapes, or letters, you want your child to experience. Then over time as their bodies become stronger and more agile reduce the scale/size of the activities until eventually they are ready for the paper and pencil stage.

Really Big, set up an obstacle course which makes a child move in the same directions as the letter formation would, they could walk, run, scooter or cycle the route.

Very Big, draw the letter really big on the ground with chalk, make the start point and direction of travel clear and talk them through the walk of the letter, any turns, and which direction to take. Do this several times and then get the child to talk through themselves as they walk the route, perhaps even getting you to do the walk and telling you what to do. Try different ways of moving through the letter but always make sure they are moving in the right direction needed to correctly write the letter on paper.

Big, by drawing the letter in the air using large arm movements which cross the mid-line (vertical imaginary line that runs through the middle of the chest and belly button). Talk through the actions with them, stand next to them (on their left if they are right-handed or the right if left-handed) when doing this, rather than in front. This means they can watch and copy you easily if they get stuck or confused.

Getting Smaller, with your finger draw the letter on their back while talking through the actions and then get them to repeat the activity on your back.

Smaller Still, try drawing the letter in different media such as sand (wet or dry), finger paints or corn flour mixed in a little water to form a kind of paste. Make sure they are forming the letters correctly; make the start point and direction clear for them. It can be a good idea to let them play freely first before trying the letter or shape formation exercise.

Even Smaller, now look to draw the letter on paper, letting them use whichever writing media they like - paint, crayon, chalk, felt tip or pencil as long as they are holding the writing tool appropriately (age dependant).  Make the starting point and direction clear for them to start with then let them do it by themselves. Once they seem confident in forming the letter move to large gapped lined paper and pencil and reduce the line gaps as their skill improves.

Your child will love these sort of activities as they see it as just playing and they get your undivided attention. You will enjoy it as you are sharing quality time with your child helping them to develop more than just their pre-handwriting patterns and/or letter formation ability but also their communication and social skills.

Non-pencil activities

Five types of play

Learning through play is a powerful way of supporting your child's development. So, have fun and play!

Many of the games in our Key Strengths section are suitable for young children and can be adjusted to be age appropriate. They have been created to help you give your child a range of play type experiences that help them to develop the muscle strengths and flexibility (gross & fine motor skills) required for general good health. It is just a happy coincidence they are also the skills they will require later as they start to lean to handwrite.